Opium farmers work fields despite ban

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

SHAH AGHA DORAHI, Afghanistan -- By the middle of March, the Afghan governor had vowed, tractors would fan out across the countryside, tearing up fields of opium poppy.

But on this sunny mid-March Tuesday, 10 miles from the governor's office and mere weeks from harvest, Abdul Wadood calmly tended his opium crop. "I haven't heard anything," the farmer said.

A local official explained why. "This is not a stable government," said Haji Naik Nazar, the district chief. "We don't want to disturb the security situation. If we create this new problem, this would be a very big one for us."

Opium is a very big problem, indeed, for the new Afghan regime, and for its U.N. and American sponsors.

Source of income

In the 1990s, the narcotic -- raw material for heroin -- became the chief source of income for Afghanistan; it grew more than 70 percent of the world's supply. In 2000, the ruling Taliban banned poppy growing and production fell to almost nothing.

During last fall's U.S.-led war against the Taliban, however, farmers quickly replanted the opium-bearing flowers. A preliminary U.N. survey finds 84 percent of the previous area is in poppy cultivation again.

Eradicating the crop now would cause immediate hardship for tens of thousands of Afghan farmers and harvest laborers.

"We have a lot of expenses -- seed, water, renting the tractor," said Abdul Wadood, 30, standing beside his 48-by-48-yard plot, or jirib, of poppy. "The poppy covers our expenses. The wheat" -- grown on his four other plots -- "pays for our food."

Every farmer in this area of flatlands irrigated by deep wells, against the rock-ridged background of the Kandahar mountains grows poppy on at least one-quarter of his land, locals said.

"Here's the way it works out," said farmer Mohammad Gul, 25, a small scythe in hand. "When I grow one jirib of wheat, I can make 7,000 rupees" -- about $120. "When I grow one jirib of poppy, it brings 100,000 rupees" -- $1,700.

Ban announced

The new interim Afghan government, encouraged by the U.N. Drug Control Program, announced a ban on poppy cultivation in January, long after the seeds had been planted. In late February, the spokesman for Kandahar province Gov. Gul Agha told reporters that tractors would plow up the province's poppy fields in mid-March.

At the Arghandab District office, responsible for this and dozens of other Kandahar province villages, district chief Nazar said Tuesday he had received a letter from the provincial government in late February saying poppy had been banned. But there is no plan to destroy the crop, he said.

An Associated Press reporter heard a similar warning from the top aide to the governor of neighboring Helmand, Afghanistan's biggest opium-growing province.

The plants in Abdul Wadood's field stood five inches high on this mid-March day. He said he expected the red poppy flowers to blossom in mid-April. A week or two after that, village children will slit the bulging poppy pods, letting opium ooze out, to be followed by expert harvesters who scrape the drying lumps into sacks. They'll sell the sacks to middlemen, who will take them to town and into the heroin-production chain.

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